The Runaway

A Short Story About The Digital Divide

The runaway sat on the pavement where the bus conductor had ejected him. He was hungry. It was around the time he got home from school every day and raided the thick buttered rotis his mother tied up in a cloth and hung from a peg in their kitchen. Today, she would miss him and cry pitifully. The thought pleased and saddened him.

He touched his khaki pocket where something small and hard dug into his right thigh. He knew it was a coin that had somehow escaped the conductor’s rapacious fingers. He knew it was a 2-rupee coin but he drew it out slowly as though it could become a fiver by some wishful alchemy.

What would two rupees buy, he wondered. In his village, any neighbour would have fed him one meal for free. He could have got a glass of buttermilk, at least. But here, he didn’t know. The houses across the road were big and neat. They had big gates, and behind one gate a big dog growled and barked at him irregularly.

The runaway wanted to go somewhere else but he couldn’t make up his mind to go up or down the street.

He saw two boys cycling towards him. Cricket bats stuck out of their cycle carriers. The runaway noticed their colourful clothes without feeling the inferiority of his own khaki uniform. He stared at their sleek bicycles. He forgot his hunger.

The boys stopped within earshot but instead of playing they pulled out phones and became engrossed in an exchange the runaway did not understand. He walked up to them and stared at their phone screens. They were playing a game.

The boys noticed the runaway for the first time and were not pleased. One of them pushed him. The runaway punched him in the face. Although he was skinny, he drew blood. The big boy’s nose stung and he had tears in his eyes. He glanced at his friend, and the chase started. The runaway was swift as a dog. He dodged them, he scratched them, he outran them easily and flung clods at them as well. He was enjoying it thoroughly.

The friends stopped to catch their breath and signal a truce. He could be useful in a fight. “Will you play with us,” bleeding nose asked. He could not run faster than the runaway but he could show him his place in cricket.

The runaway agreed. No hard feelings, it was all a game to him. He had been punched in the face many times, and he had repaid others just as often.

Bleeding nose was wrong: the runaway hit him for a six. Other boys were approaching and bleeding nose considered whether they would agree to bash up the runaway together. Probably not. It would be worse to have himself humiliated in a game of cricket.

“Our friends are here,” he said to the runaway. “They don’t know you, and none of them would want you in their team.” He noticed the runaway became sad. It was the first sign of weakness the boy had shown.

“You will have to go now,” bleeding nose said, and the runaway seemed to shrink. His hunger, fatigue, loneliness and homesickness rose together in his breast. He dropped the bat and turned to go, a poor, dejected child.

“Wait, we can play hide and seek. You against the rest of us,” said bleeding nose, and once again the runaway’s fighting spirit surfaced. “Yes,” he said smiling. At that moment, bleeding nose seemed to him friend and family combined.

“We are playing hide and seek today,” bleeding nose announced to his friends. “This fellow will hide and the rest of us will find him.” The others were always game for something easy and lazy.

“If we don’t find you in five minutes, you win, and we will buy you a Coke. If you lose, you buy us all a round.”

The runaway told them he had no money. “No watch either,” someone observed, and the runaway became aware of his miserable appearance. He could have stared down any of them, but not all together.

“Here, take my watch; it’s a smartwatch, so be careful,” bleeding nose said, winking at the others, and they laughed. The runaway did not get the joke but he felt grateful, and sorry that he had hurt bleeding nose. “Just don’t fiddle with the controls, okay?” bleeding nose said, drawing more laughs. “You can clean our bicycles if you lose.”

They gave him a two minutes’ start and then they strolled leisurely towards the bush where he was hiding. They came up almost to the point where he was crouching and stood there till four minutes and 55 seconds elapsed. The runaway felt tortured all the time. He held his breath but his heart hammered his ears. Just when he thought he would win, a hand pushed through the leaves and touched him. The runaway collapsed panting. For the first time in his life he felt beaten.

“It’s all right,” said bleeding nose, “you are new here. We will give you a five minutes’ start. Find yourself a nice, safe place this time.”

“But don’t run away with his watch,” someone said to guffaws and claps.

The runaway hid under a big car, the biggest he had ever seen. It was low and shiny, and he would have liked to bring his village friends over to see it.

Again they came slowly. Their feet circled the car and stopped but their giggles didn’t. If they had found him, why didn’t they say so? If not, why didn’t they go somewhere else?

At the last moment heads bent to look at him from all sides, and the runaway could not suppress his sobs. He was beaten now, humbled, humiliated. He wanted his mother. He wanted his bed.

“You are hopeless,” said bleeding nose, shaking him like a rag doll. “Don’t cry like a girl. We will give you one more chance, and if you lose you can just go away. We don’t want you to clean our bicycles.”

“But return his watch before you go,” said someone.

The runaway stumbled away, his eyes full of tears. The fight had gone out of him completely, but seeing a large abandoned water tank behind a house he clambered inside it, pulled the lid over and waited in the creepy darkness.

Like inevitability itself, the hunters came again. They surrounded the tank and laughed. They knocked on its round wall of black plastic and whistled but they did not lift the lid and end his misery.

The runaway could not see the watch in the dark, and every moment seemed to him like eternity. He was shaking and crying now. He wanted to show himself and admit defeat, yet an unwritten code that only boys understand wouldn’t let him do it.

He heard something, maybe a stick, pushed through the rings on the lid and the tank’s rim. They slapped the wall louder now.

“We can’t find you, oh, we can’t find you. We owe you a Coke. Come and take it any time you want.”

“And don’t forget to return the watch, ha-ha-ha.”

Then they were gone.

***

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